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Hitting the Right Note

Ed Orr Posted:
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This week’s ramble round Tyria is going to be something of a difficult read for some of you. In fact, it’s not really going to be about words. Rather, I’m going through a part of Guild Wars 2 that is often celebrated but rarely explored. While I had a chance to talk to ArenaNet about the tech behind their graphical updates during our hands on for A Bug in the System, it occurred to me that most of us rarely notice all the ways the development team build the world around us and never notice that this is probably one of the most diverse soundtracks you’ll hear.

Before I even woke from my very first dream, Guild Wars 2 made a statement of intent through its music. The work of Jeremy Soule that blasted out of Convention booths and PCs still manages to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. It made a bold statement, that this was going to be an epic, triumphant return to Tyria, and it really was. The very first Overture still resonates with me today. The original Guild Wars 2 soundtrack contained more than a few of these epic audio interludes, yet the one that seems to stick with me will always be Fear not this Night. Launched around the release of Guild Wars 2, it was composed by Soule and features gorgeous vocals by Asja Kadric. While many of us were still exploring the world, watching Zhiatan’s influence slowly start to strangle our homelands, this haunting anthem encapsulated the struggle that Tyria faced. It serves as a beacon, much like the game’s Overture track.

In fact, much of the core game’s soundtrack acts as an anthem to rally towards. The Charr Triumphant is a track that still crops up from time to time, its foreboding bass and military percussion a call to war. It is typical of much of Soule’s work throughout much of the first Guild Wars and video games. A stunning bombastic orchestral feat that would feel at home in Skyrim or any major motion picture constantly pushes players through the land with vigor. It also makes some of the more recent counterpoints to this theme especially fitting. For those of us that have already walked the Path of Fire, you’ll know notice a shadow that hangs heavy on the horizon right now, and Maclaine Diemer’s recent rendition of Fear Not this Night is the perfect antithesis to Soule’s enthusiastic call to arms. The menace that now hangs in the air is excellently conveyed by the latest changes to the original Fear not this Night. In making these alterations, Maclaine recorded a brief bit of his own voice and warped it, ratcheting down and drawing down the vocals, adding a droning persistence, and injecting a menace that seems to close in around the trailer for A Bug in the System. It wasn’t a one man show, however. Chris Burges from ArenaNet’s Audio team wrote the music for the first half of this track, while Chelsey Shuder and Jason Byfield were also instrumental in the conception of this rework. It still follows the same structure of the original but listen to the full version on the ArenaNet Soundcloud and you’ll notice a chilling change to the closing lyrics.

Maclaine has really been instrumental in the musical direction of much of Tyria and it’s a massively diverse canvas. After taking over the majority of the musical mayhem, he led us into a twisted claustrophobic nightmare in the Maguma Jungle. It stripped down the sweeping strings of Soule’s work and put a heavy emphasis on an ominous sounding bass. Think, the sort of thing you’d expect to hear just before Darth Vader waltzes into your Monday meeting. His small band has also flagged impending threats throughout the Living World and even returned us to triumph during Path of Fire.

What is kind of inconceivable, is that while ArenaNet beavered away on their Expansions, the audio teams still managed to make brand new music for the Living World. The Living World cadence reached a particular crescendo when ArenaNet started throwing out updates every other week. While the studio’s development teams were largely siloed into respective projects, the musical talent in house is not quite as large in number. In spite of various Living World episodes, a schedule that seemed to burn the studio out, and an expansion looming on the horizon, over an hour of brand new music made it into the first three seasons of Living World. Of all the moments in Living World, it's a look back to the old days that always pulls at my heart. Crystal Oasis Redux made its modern return to Guild Wars during Living World Season 2. As the game raced towards Balthazar's return we tumbled into Glint's Lair and watched Echoes of the Past. It was a throwback to Guild Wars, and the arrangement was a beautiful bit of nostalgia. After a little bit of inspiration from the rest of the team, Lena Chappelle and Maclaine took Glint's Theme and arranged the iconic piece from Guild Wars Prophecies to create a moment that was, for many of us, a magical return to a long-forgotten place. Crystal Oasis aside, Glints Theme is one of the most memorable character pieces in Guild Wars and can be found dotted throughout the game. Listen to your Revenant and you’ll find elements of it.

By the end of the last Living World Season, we were on the Path of Fire and about to hear one some of my favorite musical moments so far. The entry into Amnoon is, like Soule’s bombastic Overture, a flagpole for the rest of the game. Listen to Path of Fire or Welcome to the Desert and you’ll find soaring strings, bold brass, and regiments of percussion that creates a sweeping epic. It’s a little bit Laurence of Arabia and unashamedly so.  This is the nearest that MacLaine’s stewardship comes to aping Soule’s signature work on the opening elements of the franchise and that’s no bad thing because this is a game that doesn’t just play in one key.

We’ve already hinted the Heart of Thorns was a departure from the normal video game hyperbola but Guild Wars 2s seasonal fare comes utterly out of left field. The Super Adventure Box is probably a familiar entry on everyone’s calendar. A retro challenge, it is the blisteringly bright dungeon that throws sensibilities to the wind and even brought Rytlock to life. It also used what we’d consider incredibly constrictive technology. 8-bit music isn’t just another keyboard. The construction of the Super Adventure box used software like FamiTracker and Chipsounds, as well as a narrow a narrow set of computing power to get the sort of sound you can hear in the 8 bit blast. It is the only chiptune I’ve heard in a modern MMO and a brave endeavour when it is ultimately such a world shattering piece of audio. Turns out it was great though, and you can find out how they did it on the accompanying blog post.

If we are going to end our ramble through the audio archives with something different then I’ll pick something that many of our newer Tyrian’s might not have heard before. Dragon Bash was one of the earliest Tyrian celebrations and still one of my favorites for one special reason. In a simpler time where Zhaitan was our only worry, and centaurs were considered a real threat, the Dragon Bash festival appeared. More to the point, a studio troupe of performers also arrived and struck up the band to produce the sort of anthem we won’t see anytime soon. Check out the video and tell us if you can recognize any of those youngsters.

My brief ramble through the musical interludes of Guild Wars 2 wouldn’t be complete, however without the players. Back in 2012, ArenaNet introduced the Wintersday Choir Bell Ensemble event. It was the first time’s I’d seen a musical system in an MMO and it was an utter revelation to me. The event pushed players to participate in a straightforward rhythm game. Notes ranging from D4-D7 were playable and keeping time with the winter melodies was crucial. Things kind of snowballed from there. and since then we’ve got more bells, horns, drums, a bass guitar, harps, and lutes. We’ve also obtained the Musician’s Guild of Tyria, a group of players who are just utterly dedicated to making the most of these Gizmos. ArenaNet’s system is no LOTRO or Star Wars Galaxies, players don’t get a text editor or a class system to support these bundles. It takes some serious effort to get as good as this guild, but it’s a community that continues to thrive to this day If you’ve not heard them then you can keep an eye out for their community concerts.

My rummage around the musical history of Tyria barely even touches on the variety of music in ArenaNet’s archive. I haven't talked about Halloween, Guild Wars 1, or some of the more offbeat things scattered around Soundcloud., I have demonstrated that there is a lot more to Guild Wars 2’s voice than a call to arms. What’s your favourite piece of Guild Wars music? Did we mention it, or is it a special little bit of ambient accompaniment that I missed?


Ed Orr